An official Chinese entry for “Best Foreign Language film” in the 84th Academy awards, but failed to make the cut, director Zhang Yimou’s (Hero) “The Flowers of War” is set in 1937 during the second Sino-Japanese war. Originally titled “13 Heroes of Nanking” is another film about the story of the “Rape of Nanking” which was awesomely portrayed in 2009’s “City of Life and Death” and if you compare one with the other, “Flowers of War” despite some strong performances and good emotions, just pales in comparison with Lu Chuan’s historical masterpiece in 2009.
The film is based on the book “The 13 Flowers of Nanjing” by Geling Yan which portrays two groups; one is made up of female convent students while the other is made up of prostitutes who came from a famous brothel across the river. The two groups end up hiding in a church whose parish priest had recently passed on and now, his supposed mortician named John Miller (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight) have taken up his role. Despite the Japanese soldiers’ evil intensions, the group is allowed safe sanctuary in the church by a Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watanabe) because of his love for music. But when his superiors order their participation in an army celebration, the two female groups must find a way for the innocents to survive, even at the cost of their very lives…
For some reason, “The Flowers of War” despite being intended for international viewers, it fails to totally connect. It is a decent harrowing drama about the rape of Nanking, and sure, with Christian Bale as one of the leads, the film should get international attention with ease. I am not sure, but while the film does have some good emotions and themes, by limiting itself to the experience of one group of people, it feels to rather downplay the true harrowing event about the Rape of Nanking and feels more aimed to generating money than actually telling the real story. Its intentions may be good, and it is hard not to compare this film to “City of Life and Death”; because certain dynamics in the film just did not fit well, most notably the workings of a Western man and a bunch of Asian women feels rather conventional and gimmicky. But let’s get down to the details shall me?
I have to admit that the film does start off very strong and sets a powerful tone. The film begins with several groups of people trying to reach safety from the Japanese war machine. A small group of Chinese soldiers engaging Japanese troops reinforced by tanks are led to the ultimate sacrifice. The battle scenes are exquisite, and the atmosphere feels harrowingly accurate. Zhang Yimou always had a knack in shooting such spectacle and he does not fail in the battle scenes in the first act. Major Li (Tong Dawei) is one interesting character and even his attempts to engage the enemy (ala-Enemy at the Gates) was exciting and suspenseful. There is a bit of flag-waving as can be expected from a Chinese production, as soldiers are seen as true heroes and willing to sacrifice their lives. Yimou does an incredible job with the battle scenes in making them feel realistic in exuding the drama of war.
Now, despite the fact that there are a few battle sequences, “Flowers of War” is not a war film at its core. It is more a tale about survival, finding one’s inner heroism, and making the ultimate sacrifice. Bale’s John Miller is one that appears to be cynical until he finds himself in a situation that forces him to see a bigger picture. The central drama between the schoolgirls led by Shu (Zhang Xinyi) and the prostitutes led by Mo (Ni Ni) is powerful but the film fails to capitalize more on their differences and instead by focusing more on the dynamics between Miller and Mo feels a little too commercial (like "Hollywood") and heavy-handed. The romantic subplot between Miller and Mo felt rather unnecessary to play a part in its central premise. I would’ve wished for a more intricate development on the schoolgirls and prostitutes' dealings of their differences and conflicting views. The film does present a powerful chord as in the weighing of a sacrifice in its core. Just what is more important, the lives of innocent schoolgirls or the lives of damaged women?
Ni Ni is an amazing actress and she is alluring to look at, she can command the screen almost as good as Zhang Ziyi. Bale feels a little out of his element and you can just feel that he had been shoehorned into his role. Zhang Xinyi does have her time to shine, and her character displayed some layers in relation to her father who she sees as a traitor. The actresses are fine with their performances, they maintain their personalities despite the fact that the film moves in three languages (English, Chinese and Japanese languages) and the exchanges feel awkward at times. Atsuro Watanabe plays a sympathetic character in Hasegawa, a Japanese officer who understands, and yet could not do anything to live up to his own moral stances.
Yeah, the film portrays the Chinese as fallible and yet noble, unlike Lu Chuan’s masterpiece, the film is barely able to see the Nanking incident from both sides.Sure the film may have held back and came out a little soft with its themes, but the evils that the Japanese does were indeed depraved and despicable. In this film, the viewer will get to see a lot of harrowing images; bodies are mutilated and strewn all over the city, near-rape of the schoolgirls while the actual rape of prostitutes. There is hardly any balance in the portrayal of human behavior at war. War can create monsters, and will not differentiate to race. Those who are not the sophisticated cinema fan will not notice its pandering characterization.
Technically speaking, Zhang Yimou’s “Flowers of War” is impressive. His strong talents as a director still managed to impress me, despite the fact that he was compromised because of the film's screenplay and characterization due to its marketing ambitions. Explosions are used for visual and emotional effect, the war sequences are strong and intense, and slow motion was used sparingly. It does manage to build up from its intense and grim battle scenes to the drama that whose emotions were felt in the final act. It does have a lot of elements that slowed down its momentum, and it suffered from certain transitional issues. Yimou was able to bring strength and artful craft, but the screenplay lacked steadiness and just wasn’t able to complete everything the film should’ve been. It is good and it does fly high, but just wasn’t able to fly highly enough to reach its destination.
This is one I’ve got to be as upfront as possible about: stories dealing with the atrocities involved in the brief Japanese invasion of Nanking ( China ) are NOT for everyone. If you’re unsure of the incident long referred to as ‘the Rape of Nanking,’ then I’d encourage you to Google it, investigate in on your own before jumping headfirst into Yimou Zhang’s THE FLOWERS OF WAR; familiarize yourself with one of history’s darkest hours in order to get … more